A Texas pro-life law set to take effect in September is receiving nationwide attention for its unique approach to stopping abortion: It allows citizens to sue abortion doctors and clinics.
The law, known as Senate Bill 8, was signed by Gov. Greg Abbott in May and prohibits abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected, which is around six weeks of pregnancy. Although other states have passed similar bills, the Texas law is unique in that it allows private citizens to enforce the law through civil lawsuits.
The New York Times spotlighted the law in a July 9 story and quoted a Planned Parenthood lawyer as saying there could be “a flood of suits across Texas’ 254 counties.”
“It’s completely inverting the legal system,” said Stephen Vladeck, a constitutional law professor at the University of Texas at Austin, told the New York Times. “It says the state is not going to be the one to enforce this law. Your neighbors are.”
The text of the law says “any person” other than “an officer or employee of a state or local governmental entity” may “bring a civil action against any person who … performs or induces an abortion in violation” of the law. The suit would involve lawsuits in state courts, not federal courts. Those who sue and win would be awarded at least $10,000 for each illegal abortion.
Abortion clinics “are stuck in state court in a defensive posture, and there’s a lot at stake,” Howard M. Wasserman, a law professor at Florida International University, told the newspaper. “If they lose, they are on the hook for significant sums of money.”
The law is difficult to challenge, The Times said, because it’s “hard to know whom to sue to block it.” The law “effectively deputizes ordinary citizens,” The Times said.
“If the barista at Starbucks overhears you talking about your abortion, and it was performed after six weeks, that barista is authorized to sue the clinic where you obtained the abortion and to sue any other person who helped you, like the Uber driver who took you there,” Melissa Murray, a law professor at New York University, told The Times.
Denny Burk, director of the Center for Gospel and Culture at Boyce College in Louisville, Ky., said pro-lifers nationwide “need to pay attention” to the new law’s impact.
“On this side of abolishing Roe,” Burk tweeted, “this may be the ‘legal hack’ that could put an end to almost all abortions.”
Pro-lifers need to pay attention to what Texas has just done. On this side of abolishing Roe, this may be the "legal hack" that could put an end to almost all abortions. Read how it worked in Lubbock. Planned Parenthood stopped providing abortions there. https://t.co/sQu9hO70en— Denny Burk (@DennyBurk) July 9, 2021
Photo courtesy: Unsplash/Pete Alexopoulos
Michael Foust has covered the intersection of faith and news for 20 years. His stories have appeared in Baptist Press, Christianity Today, The Christian Post, the Leaf-Chronicle, the Toronto Star and the Knoxville News-Sentinel.